Paul Zenon, a comedy magician, is the first to admit that magic suffers from a serious image problem. "People think it's dated and try to avoid watching it. It's a very reactionary profession and hasn't changed much since the 1950s. Anything new gets slated; magic magazines complain when magicians use the word `bugger' - I think `What year is this?' Many magicians still believe top-hat-and-tails is the only dress option. The Magic Circle has recently instituted a dress code for meetings - jacket and tie preferred, no T-shirts, trainers

or baseball caps. They're

really looking forward to

the millennium."

All of which leaves Zenon quite content. "I'm happy because it makes it easier for me to be different if they're just concentrating on dove productions. When a compere introduces me as `comedian and magician', there is an audible sigh from the audience - `Oh, not a bloody magician'. But when they see my act, they're pleasantly surprised. It's nice to go on and turn the magician's image on its head because you're not what they expect. My act is stand-up using tricks as a vehicle for comedy in the same way as other comedians might use jokes about drugs or their mother-in-law to hook their material onto."

Zenon is also distinct from other magicians in his use of more down-to- earth objects in his tricks. "I don't use glittery curtains or strange- coloured rabbits. I use credit-cards and flick-knives. I employ for entertainment purposes techniques from the underworld - like pick-pocketing or con-artistry - because I haven't got the bottle to do them on the street, where I'd get knee-capped for them."

The aim of this man, who is bringing his art into the 21st century, is "to make magic contemporary and something people can identify with. Changing a girl in a cage into a lion is a great spectacle, but it isn't something you can relate to - unless you're a lion-tamer."

For all his claims of modernity, Zenon admits that he is merely drawing on a long and popular tradition. "Between 1890 and 1930, all the top music- hall acts were comedy magicians. The most popular performer in 1910 was someone called Carlton the Human Hairpin, whose catchphrase was `I must have a boy.' Times don't change that much. Without getting libellous, you could draw parallels with a few media figures today..."

Paul Zenon is appearing with Hattie Hayridge and Richard Morton on a bill compered by Robert Llewellyn as part of the Islington International Festival tonight at the Spiegeltent, Highbury Fields, London, N1 (0171- 288 6700)